We complain that democracy is under assault from Donald Trump, but he’s just a cog in a much larger worldwide machine that is tearing down democratic self-governance. Purely to enhance profits, the transnational corporate community literally works every day to more deeply intertwine our economic, social, and political systems with those of “business-friendly” authoritarian regimes around the world.
These American corporations are thus normalizing authoritarianism and helping silence those who speak out in favor of democracy. As a result, Freedom House notes, “Between 2005 and 2018, the share of Not Free countries rose [from 23 percent] to 26 percent, while the share of Free countries declined [from 46 percent] to 44 percent.”
And when democracy fails, history tells us that war usually follows.
It used to be at least embarrassing for American companies to get caught trying to do business with brutal governments; now it’s the core of the American business model, with American companies embracing and depending on governments and government-owned companies from Saudi Arabia to China (two countries currently subsidizing the construction of Trump resorts within their borders) and Turkey (with its own Trump “twin tower”).
CEOs who lecture us on free speech, customer service and LGBT rights cravenly snivel before the Chinese government when told they can’t mention Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, or the Hong Kong democracy movement. Oil companies, banks and defense contractors eagerly court the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia even as the CIA concludes he ordered the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
This transition in business ethics has led to an ongoing crisis in democratic institutions and governments around the world.
Here at home, the post-Powell Memo (1971) corruption of American government by billionaire and big business interests has led to an explicit failure of democracy — where average American voters don’t get what they want when they vote — that is now tearing our country apart.
Admiral William McRaven, who ran the operation to take down Osama bin Laden, has recently written that America is under attack from within by Donald Trump. He added that our power on the world stage comes not from military or economic might, but because our “ideals of universal freedom and equality have been backed up by our belief that we were champions of justice, the protectors of the less fortunate.”
But McRaven — and other commentators generally — fail to identify the largest source of support for regimes around the world that illicitly imprison millions of their own people, murder their political critics while their corrupt leaders live opulent lives, and ruthlessly suppress free speech and forbid a free media.
The source that has empowered Trump to claim that the Constitution says he can do anything he wants and that the press is the “enemy of the people” is the American-based transnational business community, particularly its largest members.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the last months of Reagan’s first year in office, Armand Hammer, the president of one of the world’s largest oil companies, was frustrated that his repeated attempts to reach out to the president were being “blocked” by people in the administration.
Like Fred Koch, who built an oil empire in the USSR with the help of Joseph Stalin, Armand Hammer had bought Occidental Petroleum out of near bankruptcy and, with the help of Vladimir Lenin and, later, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, turned it into one of the largest private oil and chemical empires in the world.
Unlike Koch (who had become fervently anti-communist upon his return to the U.S.), though, Hammer enthusiastically traded with every Soviet administration until the day he died in 1990. And it worried the men around Reagan.
Reagan himself was highly corrupt, as were many of the people around him. But they knew they couldn’t openly challenge the idea of democracy, or openly embrace violent authoritarians.
America has never lived up to the values we claim to espouse, but at least we’ve held them up as goals worth accomplishing. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that every person was entitled to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” everybody in the world knew he wasn’t referring to all Americans.
But it was a beginning, and by holding high the ideals of the Enlightenment, we ensured that we’d steadily, albeit slowly and in fits and starts, get to the targets we were espousing.
And even though we’ve helped out and collaborated with our share of despots over the years, at least we generally did it with what we considered to be a good reason that would one day lead to a greater good—or we did it outside of the light of day. The result of this apparent moral clarity was an explosion of nations throughout the 20th century claiming for themselves our values and thus instituting democratic forms of governance.
Although there were only a handful of democratic governments worldwide in the 19th century, by the beginning of the 21st century, nearly half the world’s population lived in democracies, comprising fully one-third of the world’s nations.
And democracy, it turns out, is the most powerful way of preventing war.
Back in 1795, when the idea of a stable and enduring democracy was only a flickering experiment in North America and just catching fire in France, Immanuel Kant suggested that it might be possible to eliminate the worst scourge that had, since the days of Gilgamesh, afflicted humankind: he believed that, through the simple institution of a political system, war could be ended for all time.
Kant’s treatise on the topic, Zum Ewigen Frieden: Ein Philosophischer Entwurf (Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Draft), suggested that when a nation was ruled democratically — that is, by the will of the majority of the people — those people would never choose war unless it was in self-defense. Therefore, Kant reasoned, if all nations were democratic, there would never be aggressors (because no majority of citizens would ever vote to send their own children off to die unless attacked), and war would be eliminated.
Kant’s prediction didn’t come out of the blue. Similar sentiments had been implied by Adam Smith in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, and were openly advocated by America’s founders, particularly Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin, who wrote that “All wars are follies,” and, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”
That’s almost certainly why the Constitution gives the ability to declare war exclusively to Congress, which answers to the people of the nation every two years in a national election.
The concept of democracy preventing wars wasn’t much discussed — other than among philosophers — between the Civil War and World War I. But in the 20th century, scholars rediscovered Kant’s work on democracy, and the “democratic peace theory” became a credible subject of study and debate.
One of the first was former Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, later U.S. president, who echoed Kant in his belief that the promotion of democracy around the world (through the League of Nations, in his case) could end war for all time. This is why World War I was, during its time, considered “the war to end all wars.”
Later, social and political scientists began a more methodical analysis of the world since the widespread creation of liberal democracies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What they found shocked them, because it didn’t just indicate a possibility or a trend but pointed to what Kant had predicted—an immutable law of human behavior.
In a 1972 paper, Dean Babst, a research scientist with New York State, found that in a study of 116 wars that involved 438 countries, “no wars have been fought between independent nations with elective governments [between 1789 and 1941].”
If you were to consider that even though Germany was theoretically a democracy when Hitler was elected, it was no longer a “liberal democracy” when it went to war (because he had banned opposition parties and a free press), the date stretches well into the present era.
After Babst piqued the interest of the international research community, a number of papers and books were published confirming his perspective. Among the best known is "Resort to Arms: International and Civil Wars, 1816-1980" by Melvin Small and David Singer that examined every war from 1816 to 1980 that produced more than 1,000 deaths in battle. Not one of them was fought between two democracies.
One of the world’s leading experts on democracy and the author of several books on it, including "Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900," Professor Rudolph J. Rummel used a similar definition of a war (producing over 1,000 casualties) in an exhaustive analysis of 353 dyads (pairs) of nations that had engaged in battle between 1816 and 1991. Rummel, like Babst, defined a democracy as a nation with universal suffrage, a free press, and active multiple political parties. (By these definitions, the United States didn’t become a “full democracy” until 1920 when women were enfranchised; this squishiness of definitions of democracy is the main critique of democratic peace theory.)
Dr. Rummel found that dictatorships fought each other in 198 of the 353 conflicts, and democracies fought against non-democracies in 155 wars, but was unable to find evidence of anywar between two fully functioning democracies.
As "Causes of War" author Jack Levy pointed out, “the absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything to an empirical law in international relations.”
Similarly, famine, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, simply doesn’t happen in functioning democracies. In his book "Development As Freedom," he writes explicitly that, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”
Per Ahlmark, the late deputy prime minister of Sweden, addressed the European Parliament to echo that sentiment, saying:
“Again, the crucial factor is freedom. Where there is an active opposition and a free press, governments cannot neglect tens of thousands of people starving to death. When the opposition is silenced and mass media give voice only to the propaganda of the dictator, the fate of millions of people dying from famine could be kept secret and ignored—because of ideology, incompetence, systematic lying and total lack of compassion.”
Ahlmark recounts how democracies don’t initiate wars, commit democide, or experience famine, and then concludes:
“Since the last century, liberals [citizens of liberal democracies] have imagined or felt these connections to be true. And later we have seen how mass murderers have torn peoples and nations to pieces when Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao seized power. Now the peace researchers have confirmed our fears and convictions with figures, analysis and the collection of countless documents. So, my report today to the liberal parties of Europe is that you have been right about freedom the whole time.”
Some scholars suggest that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other not because of universal suffrage, multiple parties and a free press, but rather because they have a commonality of interests; this is the argument that has been made by neoliberals for corporate-managed “free trade.” Democratic peace theory was also invoked by Bush and Cheney as a justification for overthrowing the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq to “establish democracy” in those countries, although Americans have since learned the two oil CEOs were less interested in peace than in American control of the world’s second-largest supply of oil.
Others point out that some democracies have gone to war with each other, although most of their examples don’t involve fully functional and mature democracies or do involve what are basically civil wars (like the Yugoslav wars).
But regardless of the mechanism of action, there’s a broad consensus that the more corrupt and authoritarian a government is, the more likely it is to go to war.
Unfortunately, over the past 40 or so years, corporate money has corrupted government after government around the world, as other democracies embrace the radical doctrine of five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court that “money is free speech.”
The result for the world is that, since this ruling in 1976 and its adoption in similar forms by other nations over the following decades, nation after nation have discarded egalitarian democratic norms and their people know it. In most cases, what has risen in the place of democratic norms have been authoritarian strongman governments that rely heavily on corrupt corporate structures.
In moving America’s factory floor to cheap labor countries with repressive regimes like China and subsidizing Saudi Arabia’s brutal dictatorship for generations, American businesses and neoliberal politicians are both subsidizing and endorsing undemocratic governance.
By embracing the leadership of nations that have recently discarded democratic norms — like India, the Philippines, Hungary and Turkey — Trump has told the rest of the democratic world that they’re essentially on their own.
America, which fought two bloody world wars we believed were necessary to preserve democracy, is, according to Trump, done fighting even rhetorically for democracy (the Syrian Kurds, for example, had embraced secular democratic governance in most of the regions of northern Syria that Trump just handed to strongman Erdogan).
Now the question is if we’ll continue down the same long slide Trump and his billionaire buddies are pushing us into (plutocracy, authoritarianism, and kleptocracy) — or whether we’ll wake up and return to democratic norms. We’ll almost certainly find out in November 2020.
A world at war or at peace is literally in the balance.